Proud Theater empowers LGBTQ youth while illuminating audiences

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Proud Theater performs in Milwaukee. – Photo: Callen Harty

If you haven’t seen a Proud Theater production yet, you might have the opportunity soon. The LGBTQ youth theater troupe, founded in Madison, has opened chapters in Wausau and Milwaukee. And talks are underway to expand into other cities as well.

Proud Theater describes itself as “a surrogate family for those without, a second home for others, and a space of love for all.”

Sol Kelley-Jones and Callen Harty created the group in 1999 with help from Madison’s LGBT resource center, OutReach, Inc.

“It started off with three people, and over the years it just kept growing and growing,” recalls executive director Brian Wild.

Its first public performance was at a local Pride picnic in 2000. A year later came its first production in an actual theater, at UW-Madison.

Proud Theater was designed for participants ages 13–18, though exceptions have been made. Many of its performances are staged as community outreach efforts.

What happens offstage is just as important as the performances. Led by mentors, the rehearsal process begins with youth members telling stories about “the queer experience in their high schools,” which generates themes and characters that are eventually honed into scripts, says Peter Rydberg, assistant professor and director of theater at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. 

“It’s called applied drama, and it’s transformative in that the participants are all transformed by the mere act of being in the process,” he says.

As a doctoral candidate at UW-Madison, Rydberg wrote his dissertation on Proud Theater, which involved two years of interviewing participants and observing the theater’s method of developing original productions. He found the process exciting.

It’s rare, he says, that young people are given the chance to speak for themselves.

“(Proud Theater participants) are celebrated for being themselves, and that alone is worth everything that comes out of the program,” Rydberg says. “The youth can take pride in creating something. Finding ‘belonging’ is something that any young person can build their entire future on.”

“One of our biggest concerns is that the youth are taught that their voice is important, that they have something truly remarkable to say, and that within them lies greatness, in the words and the art that they create,” says Wild, who also serves as creative and performing arts program coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.

Parents of Proud Theater participants appreciate the program’s positive benefits for their kids.

“For us as parents, the most important part of our son David being involved in Proud Theater is that he has a comfortable, accepting place to go once a week where he can be himself,” says Chris Viken Harvey, whose family lives in Cottage Grove, near Madison. “He has made some really good friends, and has really good guidance from the adult mentors. Proud Theater has given my son and the other members a voice to express and accept who they are through dance, acting, music or spoken word pieces.”

Proud Theater’s growth has been gradual.

“I thought the process and the stories the kids were telling were so important that I wanted to see (the program) expanded to other parts of the state,” Wild says. “I started gathering some of the forces together, because I knew we would have to become our own nonprofit.”

The nonprofit Art and Soul Innovations was created as the theater’s fiscal sponsor in 2011.

“At that time I’d already been laying the groundwork to create our first-ever pilot Proud Theater (outside of Madison), which in this case was in my hometown of Wausau,” Wild says.

That chapter’s first show was in 2012. “As soon as we got that launched, we immediately started working in the Milwaukee area,” he says.

The Milwaukee chapter launched in April. All three chapters performed together at Milwaukee’s PrideFest in June.

Oshkosh and Appleton are possibilities for new chapters, as well as Minneapolis.

“I’ve been talking to several people outside of the state,” says Wild. “The one thing that I want to make sure of is that the three chapters that we have right now have sustainability and stability. This year, I’m going to focus more on making sure they have all the tools they need to maintain what they’re building right now.”

Volunteers are sought to assist with publicity, fundraising, website design and upkeep.

“And, of course, we welcome help on the artistic side,” Wild adds. “We need people to do sound design and light design, and all the things that make a theatrical production work.”

In addition to LGBTQ kids, young allies and youth from families with same-sex or queer-identifying parents are welcome to participate.

“We have quite a few straight kids,” Wild says. “We generally don’t ask. It’s really not important. What’s important is the work, the story that they have to tell. As long as their hearts are in the right place and they want to make a difference, by all means, please join us.”

On the web: For more information, about Proud Theater, visit www.proudtheater.org.